Now that she has passed into history, much will be written about J Jayalalithaa, admired by millions, and equally vilified by her rivals, including by those within her party in the early stages of her political life. Political pundits will analyse her several stints as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, her style of governance and the void she leaves behind in the Dravidian politics of the State.
But the one question to which everyone will grope for an answer is why she was the way she was. Having never met her during my professional career, except for a brief photo op at a private function some months ago, I sought my own answer by consulting a number of people including, I thought it necessary, some psychologists.
What transformed a shy young girl into one of the most powerful women leaders this country has seen while remaining an enigma right up to her death? The answer must lie in the turning points in Jayalalithaa’s life. Having lost her father in her childhood, the little girl was left alone in Bangalore after her mother went away to Madras to work in films. After she had grown into a brilliant student with dreams of academic achievement, she was forced into films against her wishes, apparently for financial reasons. We also saw her as a young politician who was encouraged by her mentor MGR in the face of envious rivals. When he died, they tried to suppress her and sought to scare her away through canards and innuendo.
Then we saw her being subjected to physical abuse on the floor of the Assembly, making her perhaps the only woman politician to have endured and survived such treatment. To most of the questions that critics threw at her during her 30-plus years of political life, Jayalalithaa provided the answers herself, though she always kept a distance from the media, perhaps rightly so.
“Would I have been mocked at (in school) if my mother was a leading star and not a character actor as she was?” Jayalalithaa asked one interviewer. That made her reach the conclusion that irrespective of the field one was in—films or politics, both of which were not her choices— a woman has to always give the best if the world has to deign to recognise her. Jayalalithaa therefore had to make sure that she was at the top in the film industry while being conscious of the fact that women in movies were only an “essential commodity” to provide the glamour quotient.
In politics, she found that men did not give women even that much room and instead did their utmost to get rid of women. So she made sure that she could not be wished away. Most women would have given up had they come up against the sort of difficulties that Jayalalithaa did, such as when she was pushed out of the vehicle carrying the mortal remains of MGR or when she was almost disrobed in the Assembly. But Jayalalithaa stuck to the task on hand even though her personal dreams had been very different from what she was finally ending up in. It’s a reflection of the strength of Jayalalithaa’s character that she worked with great resolve even if it was not her choice in the first place.
In the film industry she grew to be able to carry a movie on her shoulders without the hero dominating the screen, and in politics she grew into such a status soon after the mantle fell upon her. When she was able to finally establish her hold over AIADMK in the early 1990s after her electoral victory, Jayalalithaa left no one in doubt that it was she and she alone who mattered. She made it known to the world that she would let no one mess around with her any longer.
As the years progressed during which she saw many ups and downs, she never let this message get diluted: she was the numero uno and none could take her for granted, whether it was the prime minister or a secondrung leader in her party. This brings us to the question as to whether she would have otherwise survived in a state characterised by male domination and a patriarchal society? The fair answer is No. With her innate abilities and intelligence, she dug deep into her psyche to become what she became so much so that in her words, she was surprised by her own transformation.
The way she developed her personality—reflecting nerves of steel and offering limited access to party leaders and outsiders—did give her good results and she apparently felt that there was no reason to change. Those who have worked with her acknowledge the quick grasp she possessed, a trait she may have developed by virtue of having been a voracious reader, quite unlike most Indian politicians. No wonder, she looked at most of them with contempt or as people with whom she had nothing to discuss, given their hollowness. She had to live the first 40 years of her life the way the world dictated to her; for the remainder of her life, she lived exactly the way she wanted to, by dictating to the world. It is for social scientists to study how an ordinary Brahmin girl came to have a steely grip over a Dravidian party built on anti-Brahmin sentiment. But she knew how to win the heart of the common man.
If women always outnumbered men in terms of the support she enjoyed, it could be that they saw in her, a mirror of their own trials and tribulations in a society structured to allow male domination. In the last few years of her life, Jayalalithaa is said to have developed a sense of detachment and was clearly at peace with herself and all that she achieved. She even explained why she chose not to develop a successor. “That did not happen in my case and I fought my way through. After me, someone else will emerge in their own way,” was her stoic reply. Coming as it does from someone who survived and excelled in the big, bad worlds of films and politics, we have to accept her dictum, whether or not it rolls out the way it did for her.
G S Vasu
Editor, The New Indian Express